I took the opportunity yesterday to catch up with the BBC’s new comedy ‘Citizen Khan’. Focusing on a Muslim family based in my hometown of Birmingham, it lampoons the trials and tribulations of the self-appointed, self-important, and self-obsessed Mr Khan.
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of British Muslim communities will recognise the basic truths on which the programme’s characters are premised. Alia, daughter of the eponymous hero, seems to have provoked the most controversy. Alia is a shrewd young girl, doting before her parents but defiant behind their backs. There are complaints she portrays a disrespectful daughter, affronting not just her myopic parents but also a stylised vision of ‘British Islam’.
To complain about this is to miss the point. There is nothing wrong with Alia who is negotiating the difficult space occupied by second generation immigrants of whom society expects integration while their communities demand conformity.
Yet, there is plenty to lament about Citizen Khan. British Muslim life has been the subject of intense scrutiny since 9/11 for understandable reasons. It was suggested that Citizen Khan might perform a role for UK audiences similar to what the Cosby Show did for American ones — humanising the cyclical ebb and flow of a poorly understood immigrant community’s everyday patter.
But there is only one achievement that is immediately identifiable of Citizen Khan and that is it was commissioned despite saying absolutely nothing new. It all feels a bit 1970s, like a plastic table cover adorned with a faded floral pattern. As if to underscore the point, at one point Mr Khan takes an ominous call from his daughter’s prospective father-in-law. Pacing the room, he combines a neurotic tone and bellowing sneer which is more than reminiscent of the camp hysterics of Prunella Scales’ Sybil Fawlty.
And what does Citizen Khan offer that Goodness Gracious Me did not already do fifteen years ago? In many senses, it continues many of the worst themes from that other observational comedy on British Muslim life, East is East. There, many of the worst cultural practices — misogyny, patriarchy, and domestic violence — were simply laughed off. Citizen Khan began in much the same vein. One of the daughters, Shazia, is to be married whether she likes it or not. Mr Khan is racist against the white convert who now manages the local mosque.
Criticizing Citizen Khan’s treatment of these issues is not to suggest they don’t exist. They do. But what the show does by not fully challenging these gross cultural excesses is to inadvertently play into what George Bush would have called the soft bigotry of low expectations.
I don’t want to come across as the crusty curmudgeon incapable of humour. Comedy can serve as a useful vehicle for exposing difficult topics to scrutiny. David Baddiel’s ‘The Infidel’ offers genuinely funny and observational insights into the realities of sometimes fraught Jewish-Muslim relations in Britain. ‘Four Lions’, Chris Morris’ dark satire, which follows a group of hapless suicide bombers, is equally good at unpicking the naïve aspirations of would-be terrorists.
Citizen Khan presented a wonderful opportunity for a proper examination of the evolving challenges British Muslim life has faced over the last decade. Instead what does it offer beyond the same old hackneyed characters in a style of which Alf Garnett would have approved?